Programming Drum Beats using Cubase's Key Editor

Learn how to program drum beats via the Key Editor in your DAW.

Beat Construction


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Not everyone can lay down a great drum groove; be it using a drum kit or a pad based sampler like the MPC series of beat boxes some people need to resort to DAW based micro programming to get a drum beat grooving.

Although I like hitting sampler based drum pads I find that programming beats using the DAW’s key editor a far more intuitive way to work as I can manage every drum element in isolation and apply all manner of dynamic processing and timing variances to the overall beat. Some will say that hitting pads or triggering electronic drum kits via midi is far more intuitive and ‘natural’ and I completely agree with this sentiment but for those of us that are not gifted drummers or beat-makers we have to do things step by step and have control over each step.

This is where the power of the key editor in your DAW comes into play.

Key Editor

The key editor in any DAW is the default midi editor for all midi notes input via a midi controller or manually using the draw tools available within the DAW. It displays notes graphically in a piano roll-style grid and these notes can be edited in detail within the key editor. The key editor allows for detailed editing of notes and non-note events such as midi controllers and timing data. All manner of global and note midi events can be controlled within the key editor using continuous controllers or simple midi data lanes.

It is within the key editor that we can input notes and edit them to taste. This makes the key editor the perfect tool to use in programming drum beats. The ability to manually input notes and edit them to fit the required remit for any genre makes this a very powerful feature to have.

Once notes have been either input via a midi controller or ‘drawn’ in using the DAW’s tools they can then be processed further. Note length, velocity, pans, pitch, expression, volume etc are all controlled via the key editor. Quantise is also managed here and can be processed note by note or globally for the whole drum beat sequence. In fact, there is very little we can’t do in the key editor.

If you think of the DAW as a simple playback sequencer with detailed editing of notes you can then appreciate how invaluable the key editor is for the beat maker.

In the video I program an urban drum beat using Cubase’s Key Editor. I explain how to draw in notes and edit them to fit the beat’s requirements.  I show you how to adjust the volume and velocity of each note to allow for a human feel to the beat. I show you how to customise the quantise values for the beat and explain how timing variances can be edited or introduced to provide a groove for the beat.

Topics covered in this video are:

  • Using your DAW’s powerful grid and key editing functions to create new beats
  • Quantisation tricks, Midi techniques for Beat Construction
  • Using Groove Agent and chopping and substituting Midi data to create beats
  • Understanding note lengths and quantisation grids
  • Creating shotgun beats and crescendos via the Key Editor
  • Expression and cc control.